Choice of corporate sponsors at inauguration disappoints some South Dakota landowners
Without state dollars, the annual inauguration instead relies on corporate sponsors. This year, that list included companies that stand to benefit from state permits.
PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Inaugural ceremony, which featured the swearing-in of the state’s 105 legislators as well as the statewide elected officials chosen by voters in the past election, is not a state-funded event.
Rather, the festivities are bankrolled by private sponsors, even down to eschewing the use of the state fleet in favor of vehicles donated from local car dealerships, organizers say.
Yet a handful of entries in the collection of corporate sponsors for the event on Jan. 7 came as a surprise to some South Dakota landowners.
Among the nearly two-dozen sponsors were several private companies looking to make large investments in South Dakota and the Midwest as a whole — investments that in some cases require state approval and, potentially, use of eminent domain to acquire the necessary land.
Summit Carbon Solutions, a company looking to build a carbon-sequestration pipeline throughout the Midwest with hundreds of pipeline miles through much of eastern South Dakota, was one of five platinum sponsors of the event, the highest level offered.
The company is in the process of trying to secure a permit from the state Public Utilities Commission; dozens of landowners have signed on as either direct or indirect opponents to the project, citing worries including safety and damage to farmland.
Some of those landowners say this context creates the appearance of impropriety.
“[Gov. Kristi Noem] should reject the money immediately if she wants to preserve her credibility with hundreds of landowners that oppose Summit's proposed pipeline,” Ed Fischbach, a landowner from Melette, wrote to Forum News Service.
While the three members of the Public Utilities Commission are statewide elected officials and therefore independent from Noem, one commissioner has recused herself from the Summit Carbon docket due to a conflict of interest in the case. That led to Noem’s appointment of Josh Haeder, the state treasurer, to sit on the docket, a replacement process prescribed by PUC rules.
Also sworn in during the event was Chris Nelson, one of the three commissioners on the PUC. Nelson said he had not seen the pamphlet and was not involved in the planning of the event.
The inauguration is organized by the Inauguration Committee separate from the governor’s office and without taxpayer dollars; Ryan Sheldon, the spokesperson for the committee, dismissed the idea of a conflict of interest.
Sheldon did not disclose how much corporate sponsors were required to donate for the platinum, gold and silver tiers, respectively.
“The list of the large corporate sponsors, those are folks that either people on the committee have relationships with or have donated in the past,” Sheldon said. “With Summit Carbon and companies like that that are doing the permits, that would probably be a question for the PUC itself or the governor's office. As far as the committee is concerned, we get sponsors everywhere from the local car dealership all the way up the chain.”
Despite the reality that Noem had nothing to do with planning the inauguration, some landowners think the governor should have proactively rejected certain sponsors to avoid association with companies that ultimately depend on state decisions for future profits.
Noem has not publicly taken a stance on the Summit Carbon pipeline. Her office has referred media inquiries on the subject to the PUC.
“This is very concerning and disappointing that our governor would accept donations from these organizations that have ties to foreign investors and want to abuse South Dakota landowners' property rights,” Joy Hohn, who has been an outspoken critic of the pipelines, wrote to Forum News Service.
Another platinum sponsor pointed to by landowners as concerning was POET, the ethanol company involved in a separate carbon pipeline project, the Navigator pipeline, which plans to involve a smaller yet still significant footprint in the southeastern part of the state.
Of course, the governor and POET have not always seen eye-to-eye, most recently taking opposite sides in the battle over the Sioux Falls slaughterhouse ordinance.
The Navigator project is slightly behind Summit Carbon in terms of its path to a PUC permit, but it too has garnered landowner opposition over similar landowner concerns.
The exhaustive list of inaugural sponsors included a few other ethanol producers, some of which stand to benefit from the lowering of carbon emissions and the potential increase in markets if the carbon sequestration pipelines or ones like them are built.
Also present was MidAmerican Energy, the Warren Buffet-owned company looking to build a hydropower project in Gregory County. Unlike the carbon pipelines, this hydropower project is in the midst of a permitting process at the federal level.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.